Book Review: ‘The Personality Brokers’ by Merve Emre



The story of Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers and their awkward obsession with Carl Jung and personality typing

You know you’ve done it. It’s okay, I have too. It’s cheap and hollow, devoid of meaning, but it’s so easy and quick you can’t … just … not. Right?

Don’t you want to know “Which Three Fictional Characters Make Up Your Personality?” I got Daria Morgandorffer, Tina Belcher, and April Ludgate – I’m pretty cool. Or are you wondering what you will do with your future education, with “Harry Potter Sorting Hat Quiz: Which House Are You In?” (Ravenclaw, Ravenclaw, Ravenclaw!!!!)

It’s okay, we’ve all done it at one point or another. Somehow we find a sense of self, and occasionally camaraderie, by sorting ourselves into groups, even if it is just garbage. That’s what Personality Brokers:  The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, by Merve Emre, is based on: exploring the pseudoscientific bullshit surrounding the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

The story is mostly about Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs-Myers, and their dedication to creating a simple, streamlined test that could provide insight into anyone’s personality. Katherine uses it for soul searching purposes and Isabel sees the usefulness it could have as a “people sorter” for larger organizations, education, and corporations.

If I didn’t have a background in psychology, I don’t think I would have been able to finish this book.

First and foremost, if I didn’t have a background in psychology, I don’t think I would have been able to finish this book. The terminology (sensing, judging, extrovert, introvert — there are 16 different personality types in the MBTI) can be overwhelming and frustrating as hell if you can’t qualify the words to the larger concept. The Personality Brokers relies just as heavily on your ability to step back and conceptualize the given attributes collectively as the MBTI does.

The introduction makes it sound like Brokers will be a story shrouded in mystery and conspiracy, but that ball gets dropped immediately and never picked up again. The story is brimming with tedious, generally irrelevant information about the inner workings of Katherine and/or Isabel. This improves somewhat from chapter seven forward, but the latter parts are still plagued with excessive background.

Nothing in Brokers is straight and narrow. There are multiple side stories that are also overabundant in unnecessary information. The timeline gets wobbly, there is a complete shitload of name-dropping of psychologists and “creatives” that most younger and even middle-aged people are likely to have never heard of, extreme acronym usage, and a sudden and kind of awkward end to those side stories — as well as the book on the whole.

The Personality Brokers initially seems to be a deep read, as Emre speaks of being followed by strange people and intense secrecy and difficulty obtaining information on the MBTI creators. It’s mentioned in passing that the indicator was used to uphold systemic racist, sexist, and ableist values. It’s politely worded that typing had likely damned millions of people to poor education and crap jobs.

The book mentions that the MBTI was never scientifically vetted, but it’s almost like a side note.

The book mentions that the MBTI was never scientifically vetted, but it’s almost like a side note, as it expands on Isabel’s lack of interest in being validated. Vaguely touched upon is the proven fact that type can change, and does, constantly. Even when these things are mentioned and met with a cold shoulder in the seminar she physically attended, Emre seems to pass it off and never mention it again.

Frustratingly, the book ends only with the sentiment that, “At least Isabel would have been happy knowing that there are a lot of people who felt that learning their type helps clarify who they are inside.” It just seems … hollow. I’m left with tons of questions, zero answers, and a massive headache.

I had to take the MBTI during college and I can honestly say that knowing my “type” did nothing to help me in my “soul searching”. I never felt clarity with myself because I was a nerdy-ass weirdo. I still felt alone in my social awkwardness, even though I was supposedly characterized as extroverted/intuitive/thinking/judgment type.

Everyone feels different from time to time, place to place, and we’re all going to change as we grow. If you find yourself looking for an answer key to tell you a.) who you are b.) how you feel c.) what you should do, or d.) where you should go in life, there is only one real test you need: What kind of dog matches your personality perfectly?

Newfoundland, here I come.

The Personality Brokers
Is it good?
It has its moments. If you love the Myers-Briggs and enjoy personality typing, this is a good place to find all the historical data you could possibly ever want to know. However, if you're looking for scientific validity, honest statistical representation, or the unfortunate causes and effects that "typing" has had on society over time, you will not find it here.
Emre does a painstaking and absolutely thorough job in her research
The book does a great job of providing historical context for origin of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
It paints a basic framework that adequately expresses how corporate businesses benefit from our soul-searching endeavors
Oddly, chances are high that you'll take something away from this book, even if it has nothing to do with the MBTI or persoanlity testing
There is an overabundance of information, some that seems completely irrelevant to the storyline
The book is very slow to start, and drags on for several chapters as it rehashes every tiny, annoying detail about Kathern Briggs and Isabel Myers
If you aren't familiar with psychology terminology or the MBTI, you're likely to get overwhelmed
The social injustices, scientific invalidity, and many shortcomings of the MBTI and personality testing in general are glossed over or dismissed entirely
4.5
Meh
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